Dr. Elena Nicoladis and her research colleagues observed the hand gestures of bilingual children as they told the same story twice, first in one language and then the other. The researchers were surprised by what they saw.
"The children used gestures a lot more when telling the story in what they considered to be their stronger language," said Nicoladis, a psychologist at the U of A. "These results seemed counter-intuitive to us. We thought the children would be more inclined to use gestures to help them communicate in their weaker language."
Based on these results and the results of earlier studies, Nicoladis believes there is a connection between language and memory access and gesturing.
"What we think is going on here," Nicoladis said, "is that the very fact of moving your hands around helps you recall parts of the story--the gestures help you access memory and language so that you can tell more of the story."
"Initially, we thought gestures were related to meaning--that they meant something on their own. But now we believe they are more related to language," she added.
Nicoladis also pointed to another study she and her colleagues conducted that showed Chinese women who spoke English at a higher level than Chinese men also exhibited more hand gestures when talking English than the men did.
The researchers also have preliminary results to show that 8 to 10 year-old girls use more hand gestures and were able to retell more of the story of a cartoon they had just watched than their male coevals were able to. Nicoladis added that it is well-documented that girls develop language skills faster than boys.
She speculates that all of this knowledge may come in handy for people who have difficulty speaking, such as ESL students and some elderly people.
"If you're in a situation where it's important to get the language out and you're having difficulty, it may help to start making gestures," said Nicoladis, who conducts most of her research on hand gestures with Dr. Paula Marentette of the University of Alberta Augustana College.
"There's certainly a lot more work that needs to be done before we can understand everything about gestures and why we make them," Nicoladis added. "But the results so far have given us a lot to think about."
Nicoladis has published a paper on this topic in the journal Gestures. She can be reached at 780-492-0124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.